Review – Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance.

Isle of Dogs

In recent years, Wes Anderson has seemingly surpassed Tim Burton as cinema’s most popular and recognisable visual stylist. With every new film he only becomes more and more Wes Anderson. His latest offering, Isle of Dogs, is possibly his most imaginative film yet and sees him returning to the painstaking medium of stop-motion animation for the first time since Fantastic Mr. Fox.

While the title of the film may sound like ‘I love dogs,’ it takes us to a world which sadly does not. In the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future, an outbreak of snout fever and dog flu has seen Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the latest head of the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty, banish all of the city’s dogs to Trash Island. In this exile colony sick and angry dogs search for food among the garbage, forming gangs and alliances in order to survive. One day a young boy, Atari (Koyu Rankin), on a mission to try and find his dog Spots (Liev Scheiber), crashes his small aircraft on Trash Island. He is fished from the wreckage by a quartet of dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Touched by the fact that he is the only master to have ever attempted to find their dog, Rex, King, Boss and Duke decide to help the one they call ‘The Little Pilot.’ They even manage to rope in the assistance of Chief (Bryan Cranston), which is no mean feat given Chief was a stray so doesn’t share these former pets’ loyalty to human masters. Back in Megasaki, Atari’s exploits have made the news, largely due to his being the young ward of Mayor Kobayashi. One interested follower is Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a precocious exchange student journalist who believes she has uncovered a conspiracy from the government to turn people against dogs.

It almost goes without saying when you are dealing with a Wes Anderson picture, but Isle of Dogs looks amazing. Over his career, Anderson has cultivated a distinctively meticulous aesthetic, and as previously demonstrated by Fantastic Mr Fox, it transfers seamlessly from live action to animation. With Trash Island, production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get the opportunity to play with that aesthetic, trading out the beautiful pastels usually associated with Anderson’s work for a more dour landscape compiled of garbage but retaining the sense of precision and symmetry. Their imagined Japan, neither realistic nor comically heightened, makes sense as the Japan that would exist in the same world as the central Europe we saw in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Isle of Dogs 1.jpg

Atari (Koyu Rankin) and his four canine guides.

With a long tradition of Western filmmakers co-opting Japanese iconography, Isle of Dogs has faced some scrutiny from woke audiences wondering if this iconography is there’s to play with. In not only borrowing an aesthetic, but inventing an ancient mythology about pre-domestication dogs and a young samurai, is this simply more cultural appropriation? But you can breath easy. Along with regular collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, Anderson worked with Japanese actor, DJ and radio personality Kunichi Nomura, on the story. The result is a film which speaks to, and not just about, Japanese people. Quite literally in fact. While the dogs bark in English, the human characters speak Japanese and are only sometimes translated (often by an onscreen translator played by Frances McDormand rather than through subtitles), meaning a lot of humour in the film which remains untranslated for the English-speaking audience.

With baritone narration from Courtney B. Vance, Isle of Dogs takes on a storybook structure, broken down into chapters announced by inter-titles as has become Anderson’s style. Unfortunately, however, the story contained in this structure is quite a basic hero’s odyssey and is often overwhelmed by the film’s style. With Anderson’s ever expanding company of players, Isle of Dogs boasts a cast list that would rival Avengers: Infinity War for depth, and trump it for prestige. This embarrassment of riches sees an accomplished group of central players, both English and Japanese speaking, supported by bit parts from the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham and Tilda Swinton. Even the role of ‘Mute Poodle’ is played by Oscar winner Anjelica Huston. However, while we witness the developing bond between Atari and Chief, few of the other characters make a real impression. It is, for example, difficult to distinguish personality differences between Rex, King, Boss and Duke other than to note that Rex is the seemingly self-appointed leader.

Such an entrancing visual feast is near impossible not to enjoy, but given his impressive track record, a Wes Anderson film brings with it very lofty expectations, and the narrative and character shortcomings mean that Isle of Dogs, while still good fun, doesn’t quite reach them. 

Rating: ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Isle of Dogs? Leave a comment and let us know what your thought.

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